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Owning ideas

An old German folk song goes "Die Gedanken sind frei" (Thoughts are free). Not any more. With the introduction of "Intellectual property" the concept of owning immaterial things is hammered into our minds. Closer scrutiny reveals, that the various rights lumped together as IP didn't have that in mind. Copyrights, trademarks and patents are very different rights protecting very different things. Property rights were created for the fact, that if I own a thing, you can't own it. But if I tell you an idea I still have it and now it can travel. Ideas are not a scare resource, they get richer when they travel. However the term "Intellectual Property" creates the impression that it is a scare resource.  
Doc Searls reminds us to watch the language: " While the one side talks about licenses with verbs like copy, distribute, play, share and perform, the other side talks about rights with verbs like own, protect, safeguard, protect, secure, authorize, buy, sell, infringe, pirate, infringe, and steal."
This is a substantial difference. The very nature of ideas is, that they cannot be owned because they are not physical. And spreading an idea from the originator doesn't make it dissappear there. So the mental model of "intelectual property" is flawed in its very nature. We rather should stick to discriminating trademarks from patents from copyrights and have a deep thought how far we want to push idea protection. The very fabric of learning and cultural exchange is based on the fact, that ideas are shared, explored, altered and shared again. When you look into the history of languages, there were attempts of special interest groups (priests, sects or ruling class) to restrict the usage of language. All this attempts failed in the long run. Either the restriction didn't work or the language faded away.
An article in "The Guardian" sums it up nicely:
"This is madness. Ideas aren't things. They're much more valuable than that. Intellectual property - treating some ideas as if they were in some circumstances things that can be owned and traded - is itself no more than an idea that can be copied, modified and improved. It is this process of freely copying them and changing them that has given us the world of material abundance in which we live. If our ideas of intellectual property are wrong, we must change them, improve them and return them to their original purpose. When intellectual property rules diminish the supply of new ideas, they steal from all of us."  

Posted by on 20 November 2005 | Comments (1) | categories: Technology


  1. posted by jim sherrill on Tuesday 22 November 2005 AD:
    Not applicable to much:

    My favorite line from German songs is
    Das Trinken dass soll Mann nicht lassen

    Best regards,